Part Five: Liberation
(Posted to this site on 12/22/2006)
The End is Near
We worked at the convent until the first week of April 1945. We knew that the war was probably coming to an end, that it was just a matter of time.
“The end is approaching, but is it the end for me or for them?” I thought. “Who will make it?”
I definitely did not think I would.
In early April 1945, the Nazi guards moved approximately five hundred of us out of the Dachau concentration camp and placed us on a freight train. I have no idea why they placed us on that train. Whatever their reason, that train then became our prison, complete with guards and dogs. Most of the time the train just sat on the rails because there was no electric power available to move it. Some days, however, the train would move back and forth going nowhere in particular. It did not matter to us whether it moved or not because we were still prisoners.
One day we noticed that we were all alone on the train, with no guards in sight. Five of us jumped off and ran towards the forest. From out of nowhere local politzei (police) suddenly appeared and started chasing and shooting at us. At that time I was in very poor physical shape and was not able to keep up with the other guys. I told them to keep going, that I would stop and let them catch me. The police quickly caught up to me and brought me to a jail where I remained overnight thinking that they would execute me.
Much to my surprise they did not beat or punish me in any way for that attempted escape. I still thought they would shoot me when they got around to it, but the next morning, they just returned me to the train.
At the time, I didn’t know if any of the others got away. However, after my liberation, I ran into one of the others, a Frenchman who jumped off the train with us. He had a cast on his arm where the police shot him during the escape attempt. He told me how glad he was to see me because he thought they had killed me after I was caught.
One day, the train was moving very slowly south of Dachau towards the foot of the Alps, somewhere near the town of Seeshaupt.
We heard airplanes approach, and then we heard the sounds of shells exploding into the train. The prisoner next to me had his leg shattered by a shell and later died. Several other prisoners were immediately killed, and many others were seriously wounded.
As soon as the attack started, many of us jumped from the train and ran to a ditch where we remained until the planes flew away.
When I looked up, I saw American markings on the planes. I could not believe that they had attacked us. The Americans must have thought that the train was carrying German soldiers.
A week or so later, still on the train, we looked out one day and saw a large group of soldiers approaching.
But these soldiers were wearing green uniforms and green helmets instead of the characteristic metallic gray uniforms and oval helmets of the Germans. After they surrounded our train, we discovered they were Americans.
I distinctly remember the young American lieutenant who was in charge of that unit. He immediately took all the prisoners who were still alive off the train and took us into the basement of a bank building in Seeshaupt. He then ordered the setting up of an Army field kitchen to feed us.
Once this was done, he told me to get into his Jeep and we rode out to a farm where he picked out a prize steer, shot it, had it processed and brought back to the Army field kitchen. United States Army troops cooked the steer and fed it to the liberated prisoners at the bank building. It was a wonderful meal.
While we were riding in the Jeep, the lieutenant sang. I recognized the melody but did not know the words. Through the interpreter I asked him what he was singing and he replied “the Marseilles.” I wondered afterward whether he was with the American army when they liberated France.
The next morning the lieutenant picked me up at the bank building.
“Let’s go back to the train,” he said. For the first time, he saw the horrible conditions, the carloads of dead and seriously wounded prisoners whom the Nazis had left behind. The lieutenant was clearly overcome by the sight of the carnage. He handed his short carbine to me and turned to his interpreter.
“You have my permission to go into these houses and kill all or as many Germans as you want,” he said, pointing to the Seeshaupt village and its residents.
This lieutenant, so emotionally overwrought by what he had seen on the train, had momentarily lost his ability to think rationally.
I handed the rifle back with a shake of my head.
“I haven’t killed anyone yet,” I told him. “I’m certainly not going to start now.”
Return to Life
After several days, the Americans found some trucks and moved several hundred of us into the city of Munich. Many of the other prisoners had already dispersed on their own to other locations.
I did not have any place to go at that time. The Americans put us into an exclusive neighborhood previously occupied by the Nazis. We stayed there for several days.
It was a very peculiar feeling to go from a concentration camp and prison train into such luxury. I am afraid that we did not behave too well while staying there. We smashed glasses against the wall, ate meals off the Nazis’ beautiful china and then threw the dishes out the window. I am not proud of those actions; however, it was simply an irrational, emotional reaction to being free after all those years in the camps.
We went a little wild, though we never hurt anyone else with our actions.
After two weeks, an American colonel gathered us together and announced that he was going to move us into a displaced persons (DP) camp. We had had enough of camps. Even though the Americans’ intentions were to help us, we couldn’t face living somewhere that reminded us of where we had been.
I became angry.
“Hold it right here,” I told him. “You’re not going to move my friends or me to another camp. You’ve got two choices, you can move us into housing in Munich or back to Dachau, but we’re never going to a DP camp.”
A few days later, the Americans moved us into a large, abandoned school building. After we had spent so much time in the camps, where the Nazis controlled every minute of our lives, we found that we were not mentally prepared to handle freedom right away. We had no organization, and had no plans for how we were going to accomplish even the small things in life, such as preparing meals, let alone planning for the future. The Americans just put us in that school and left us on our own to figure out how we could use our newfound freedom. It did not take us long.
After being in the school building for a few weeks, I left with two friends from Ciechanow, David Sobol, and his uncle, Meier. Already I had developed some contacts. I learned that the high commissioner in charge of housing loved opera. He helped us find an apartment, and I rewarded him with opera tickets.
Some German civilians owned the three-room furnished apartment in Munich. They didn’t care that we were former prisoners, and we could afford the rent because the housing commission controlled it.
After moving into our apartment, we needed to find some means to earn a living. We engaged in black-marketing and hustling items such as buying and selling watches, jewelry and so forth. Later we became more sophisticated and started trading dollars, marks and other currency. Prices were always fluctuating so you had to be sharp to keep on top of it.
The Search for Simon
The area around the Munich museum was the meeting place where the currency traders gathered to conduct their business.
While engaging in this business I also began my search for clues to the whereabouts of my brother, Simon, or my cousin, Irving. I knew they were not in the Munich area, so I decided to jump on a train and go to Bergen-Belsen to see if I could find out anything about them.
The train went from Munich to Frankfurt and then headed north. Every so often, when the train would halt because of destroyed tracks or a power-outage, I would have to walk to another area to find another train to continue the journey.
After riding on coal trains for a very long eight days I finally arrived in Bergen-Belsen covered with coal soot. After washing my body and filthy clothing, I found some people from Ciechanow who let me live with them for a few days while I searched for information about my brother.
The early days after the war were chaotic throughout Europe.
There was no central source of information available about where the concentration camp survivors were living. You had to find your own clues and do your own searching. One day, while I was standing in the center of town I saw several buses coming in from Czechoslovakia. One of the buses pulled up close to me, and a passenger shouted through the open window.
“Samuel,” the man said. “I’ll bet you’re looking for your brother.”
He then told me that he had seen Simon three days before in Prague. I asked him where, and he gave me an address. The former prisoners assemble there every day, he told me.
“You’ll probably find him there,” he said.
Pleased with this information, I then jumped on another train and started the long trip back to Munich.
When I got home, I told David Sobol my good news and asked him to accompany me to Prague.
“We’ll need some type of identification before trying to get to Prague, though,” I told him.
At that time, the only identification I had was the number 73538, which the Nazis tattooed on my arm at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
I knew that the Czech officials would need to see some type of identification so I went to a friend, who had been placed in charge of a displaced persons camp in Munich. I knew each displaced person was required to have an ID card with a picture, so I asked my friend if he could make one for me and one for David.
Initially, he told me that it would be impossible to make ID cards for us because we did not live in the DP camp.
“I didn’t ask you what you could do for me,” I told him. “I told you what I need. I don’t care what you have to do. I’ll be back tomorrow, and I expect the cards to be ready.”
When we went back the next day, my friend was still protesting, but after we talked to him for awhile he took our pictures and issued the phony IDs to us.
Armed with proof of our identification, we then headed for the train station and tried to get on a train bound for the Czech border. After being rebuffed by US soldiers from the occupation Army, we eventually got on a train in Munich that took us into the city of Beyreuth, near the Czech border.
When we got off the train in Beyreuth we immediately found a Jewish person and told him we needed to get to Prague. He told us to cross the Czech border, guarded on both sides by American soldiers, and then get on a train to Pilsen. He warned us to be very careful because the Russians guarded the area between Pilsen and Prague, and they had the reputation for shooting first.
As we thanked him for the information, he took a handful of Czech money out of his pocket, handed it to us and told us to be careful. We each bought a big glass of Pilsen beer, and after drinking it, fell asleep on a bench in the train station.
The next morning, we saw some Jewish people who told us to be very careful not to let the Russian soldiers catch us. They told us to find a train carrying displaced Poles from Germany back to Poland, get on that train and act as if we were also heading back to Poland. Once we found and boarded that train, we spoke Polish to the other passengers and acted just as happy as they were to be returning to Poland.
Of course, we had no intention of going back to Poland. We stayed near the train door ready to jump out if it stopped to take on water or even slowed down while going through the Prague train station. As the train approached Prague, I looked out and realized that it was not going to stop for water, and it was not going to slow down while going through the station.
I told David that we were going to have to jump for it right then, otherwise we would end up in Poland. We both jumped out, rolled a few times and ran into the Prague railroad station. Once we were in the station, we knew that no one was going to bother us. We were able to speak a few words of Czech so we asked for directions to the address where Simon and Irving were supposed to be staying.
After we got on a streetcar, the conductor made a special stop for us and told us exactly where to go. As we walked down the street, someone yelled after us.
“Samuel,” the man called. “What are you doing here?”
When I looked up I saw a Polish man who had been in Auschwitz with us.
“I’ll bet you’re looking for your brother,” he said. “I saw him yesterday and gave him some money.”
After his liberation, this man had gotten a job working in the Polish embassy in Prague. He knew many of the former prisoners who had settled in the city. He told us just where to go to find Simon, and a few minutes later we found him with my cousin, Irving.It was like a miracle. The only thing that clouded the happiness of our reunion was our realization that we were the only members of our large family who had survived the Nazis’ “final solution.”
My brother told me to go into the immigration office in Prague and tell them I was born in Germany and wanted to return. The next morning we walked into the office and told the secretary that we were born in Frankfurt, Germany, and wanted to go back.
She just looked at us for a moment, a sad expression on her face.
“Look,” she said. “I’ve heard that story many times before. I know that you are Polish, so why don’t you go back to Poland where you belong. If you don’t want to go back to Poland, we’ll let you stay here in Czechoslovakia. We’ll establish your residence here, and get jobs for you.”
In an instant, I decided to confess and tell the truth. I told her that she was absolutely right. We were Polish subjects but we definitely were not going back to Poland and were not staying in Prague either. I told her that I now lived in Germany and had only ventured to her fair city to find my brother and cousin.
Evidently, she liked hearing the truth. She gave me a pass.
A few days later, we all got on the train together and had no problems getting back into Germany.
Financing the Dream
Shortly after returning home, we had earned enough money on the black market to buy a large Mercedes automobile that at one time had been a Nazi staff car. It was in good running condition, had two spare tires mounted on the side of the car, and had green leather upholstery. It was a beautiful car, and we enjoyed driving around in it. We all took turns sleeping in the car to prevent someone from stealing it.
One day a friend told me that he had access to three full sets of brand new Ritter dental equipment and we could buy them for one thousand dollars each. Each set consisted of a dental chair, X-ray equipment and everything else needed to equip three dentists’ offices.
After agreeing to the deal, I found some bombed-out dentists in Munich who needed this equipment to furnish their new offices. I told them I wanted gold in exchange for the dental sets. They readily agreed to my terms. After receiving the gold, we immediately exchanged it for American dollars. Needless to say, we made a very fine profit on this deal.
During our time in Munich, we got involved in several other profitable deals that enabled us to live a very high lifestyle.
We did not save any of this money, but we managed to have everything we ever wanted. Later we met some people who brought large sacks full of German marks into Germany from Czechoslovakia. They asked me to be their agent.
Each day I would go to the museum grounds and after agreeing on the exchange rate for that day, I exchanged the marks for dollars. Business was very brisk. We made a reasonable profit because everyone wanted to convert his or her money into American dollars.
After we took our profit, I turned over the remaining dollars to the people who had brought in the sacks of marks. Before long, I became known to the money dealers who immediately raised the exchange rate when they saw me coming. I then had my brother, Simon, or cousin, Irving, act as the dealer, in order to get the best exchange rate.
One of the most profitable deals we ever made was for pencils. After the war, it was very difficult to get pencils and most other commodities. I found a person who needed a very large quantity of pencils, so I went to the Farber plant in Nuremberg and asked to see the plant owner. When I told him what I wanted, he told me that it was impossible to get any pencils. I told him that I would not pay him in marks, but that I would be able to get any materials he needed for his plant.
“Is it possible for you to get some building materials?” he asked me.
I told him that I could. He gave me a list of materials he needed to repair the factory roof, and I took the list to a friend who ran a building materials company in Munich. I asked him what the materials would cost andagreed to his terms. He delivered the necessary materials to the Farber plant and they, in turn, delivered the pencils to me. I then delivered the pencils to my friend Leon Zelkin, who sold them to his contacts in Germany, France and Belgium. We made a lot of money on this deal.
Life in Munich after the war was challenging and exciting. After those years in the camps, we made up for lost time by having as much fun ashumanly possible. The one serious goal we had not yet achieved, however, was the goal of emigration to the United States of America.
This was the one thing each of us wanted more than anything after liberation from the concentration camps. Although we were living the good life in Munich, we could not wait for the day when we would go to the United States.
It was like a wonderful dream that we were determined to make a reality.
My cousin, Irving, received permission first to emigrate. His aunt, who resided in New York, agreed to be his sponsor.
My brother and I then received permission to leave Germany.
Sponsored by an international refugee association, we boarded a freighter, the USAT General W.G. Haan, in Hamburg and arrived in Boston on April 19, 1949.
When we arrived on the Boston docks, we had to go through United States Customs.
I must have had a worried, sad look on my face, because the Customs Agent, who knew we had been concentration camp prisoners, took one look at me and called for an interpreter.
I was a stranger in a strange land but the first words I heard in America made me feel wonderful … and welcome.
“This is the United States of America.” he said. “You don’t have to worry now because you are among friends.”
Those words will stay with me until my dying day.